Kenya: COVID-19 Silences Isukuti Drums in Kakamega

Testing for COVID-19 is carried out at St Teresa's Girls in Eastleigh in Nairobi.

On an ordinary Saturday, villages and markets in Ikolomani and Shinyalu in Kakamega County would be pulsating with the beats of the traditional Isukuti drum, setting the stage for the ferocious bullfight contests.

Bullfighting is a popular sport among the Idakho and Isukha communities, often stirring the quiet village life, gripping the attention of both the young and old.

For the owners of champion bulls, it is usually a moment to savour for as villagers troop to the open grounds to cheer and dance in the background, as the Isukuti drums punctuate the tense moments during the bullfight tussles.

For the last ten weeks, however , the roar of the charged bulls and the reverberating beat of the Isukuti drums have fallen silent.

This is due the spread of the coronavirus in the country and the effects of the same taking toll on popular sporting activities in the region after the government banned public gatherings.

For villagers, bullfighting competitions provided an opportunity for friends and foes to meet and forget, if not settle their differences while dancing and cheering as they watched the bulls battle out for victory.

But all that has been consigned to fond memories following a directive by the government, prohibiting people from gathering in social places and a requirement to observe social distancing to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Currently the champion bull in Kakamega County is known as Khabele and belongs to Mr Benson Mululu from Itenyi village.

The outbreak of the infections has smothered the frenzy that drives villagers to sporting grounds from early morning to witness the bulls engage in the life and death battles of their lives.

In Kakamega South sub-county, the Malinya stadium is usually filled to capacity with villagers who brave the chilly early morning weather to cheer, dance and shout themselves hoarse as bulls lock hones and gore each other in a vicious tussle.

The Malinya stadium is an open ground which attracts hundreds of villagers and bullfight enthusiasts from outside the region each weekend.

Former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale has been actively involved in promoting bullfighting, a sporting activity at the heart of the traditions and cultural practices of the Idakho and Isukha community.

The craze for bullfighting had reached frenzied levels, attracting staunch supporters to place bets of up to Sh20,000 for the winning bulls.

But on March 13, 2020, Dr Khalwale who is the patron of Kakamega County Bullfighters Association asked the owners of the bulls to stop engaging in the competitions to avoid exposing themselves and the lovers of the sport from being infected with the coronavirus.

"I met members of the association and appealed to them to stop the bullfighting contests because of the outbreak of coronavirus infections. At the time, the country had confirmed the first case of the disease," said Dr Khalwale.

After the meeting with the bullfighters, two people from Shitaho village in Amalemba were arrested for flouting the directive to stop bullfighting contest.

Dr Khalwale owns three bulls and he has come to symbolize the face of the bullfighting cultural sporting activity associated with the Idakho and Isukha community in western Kenya region.

The former senator's favourite champion bull is known as Malinya. He said the decision to stop the bullfighting contests was not an easy one.

"Handling a bull that is used to the fighting is not easy. Such a bull can get violent and destructive and has to be handled with a lot of care," said Dr Khalwale.

He has come up with an alternative way of taming the bustling energy that is pushing the dormant bull to become destructive after being kept away from the sport for nearly a month.

"I now arrange to have the bulls taken to anthill so that they can bring it down by butting into it and end up expending the excessive energy and become tired," said Dr Khalwale.

Mr Bonventure Munanga, the county coordinator of bullfighting association said the outbreak of the coronavirus had dealt a big blow to the sporting activity.

"We are now struggling to tame bulls which were used to fighting every weekend but are now locked in their sheds to stop them from causing injury to people and destruction to property," said Mr Munanga.

He says it has not been easy to make bullfighters in the region to understand the decision to stop the bullfighting competitions which are a crowd puller.

"We are currently dealing with a tricky situation since the bullfighters are still trying to come to terms with the disruption to the sport and at the same time find ways of calming their restive bulls which are caged in their pens at home," said Mr Munanga.

Some owners of the bulls have come up with an innovative way of taming them to calm their temperaments.

"We arrange and take the bulls for an evening walk of up to five kilometres to make them tired so that they can stay calm. It is not an easy job but to avoid unnecessary destruction caused by the animals, we have to monitor them closely and give them company," said Mr Munanga.

Mr Polycarp Muchome said the betting crazy which had gripped bullfighting enthusiasts had been dealt a big blow.

"We are no longer making the money we used to while attending the bullfighting competitions. Like football and other sporting activities, bullfighting competitions have been disrupted and this has had a negative impact on our cultural way of life," said Mr Muchome.

The bullfighters are struggling to tame the aggressive animals which are reared and trained to fight and subdue their opponents by inflicting debilitating injuries to stamp their authorities as champions.

Villagers in Ikolomani and Shinyalu are facing a new dilemma.

They are forced to bury the elderly, considered heroes in the community without giving them the final honour which entails driving bulls to the graveside in a tradition referred to as Shilemba.

The bulls are then pitted against each other in a fight as a sign of honour and respect to the departed heroes.

Mr Munanga said that the practice is no longer possible given the new restrictions on the burial of the dead which, according to the law should involve up to 50 people, including close family members.

"We have no option but obey the law. But at the moment, our heroes from the community are being buried like ordinary people and this is unfortunate," said Mr Munanga.

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